Mediating Experiences of Kashmir: Thinking through the Abrogation
“I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood.” —Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
August 2019. My sister, who lives in New Zealand, arrived in Srinagar with her husband and year-old-nephew. A day later, the Indian state revoked Articles 370 and 35A and suspended all forms of communication.
For almost 15 days, like most Kashmiris living abroad, I had no idea about my family until I received the eleven seconds of hurried voicemail. “Aes ti chi yeti saeri theek paeth,” (We are all fine here) her voice says. My dear mother attempted to call me after 15 days. She, like my family, like my homeland, curfewed. The endless curfew. “Wond maye badan,” she says. How do you translate a mother’s love into a foreign language? “Theek paeth ruzzi,” (stay well) she continues as some distant voice tells her to hurry up. “Beh rabbas chakh hawali. Beh khudayas chakh hawali” (May god be with you). “Asalamualikum.” The phone goes silent. I hold my phone close to my ear, trying to imagine the conversation we could have had. The silence is deafening.
Any discourse on Kashmir in Indian media was jingoistic. I relied on the New York Times to get news about Kashmir since the local news media was also under communication blockade. Man Booker Prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy called out the Indian state for turning Kashmir into a “giant prison camp” by “caging” seven million “humiliated” people, “stitched down by razor wire, spied on by drones, living under a complete communications blackout.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the decision of caging Kashmiris and clamping down on the communication systems, saying, “a new era has begun.” His “new era” made the paradise on earth a “living hell” for those living in Kashmir and for those of us living outside.
I still had not spoken to my family.
Almost after 18 days, at five in the morning, my phone rang. The thought of my mother clouded my mind and jolted me out of my dream-like state. I saw a long, familiar number. Under it, a tiny lettered India. I answered with an anticipated “hello.” A hello of waiting hopelessly for a phone call every night before going to bed. A hello of despair. Only to hear a stranger’s voice calling number “76.” I said hello again.
A hello of desperation, hoping it’s not a mistake. The stranger called number 76 again. I heard myself say hello again. After a panicked hello, I hear my mother’s voice saying hello back—a hello of a long wait.
I imagined my mother jostling through the crowds of worried parents waiting to call their children in foreign lands. Authorities had given them numbers/tokens and made them wait to speak to their children. In our own home, we are reduced to bare life—prisoners of the heaven-turned-hell on earth.
“Hello,” my mother called—a hello of a broken-hearted mother.
“Mummy, mummy,” I said back, my voice pregnant with grief.
As a journalism professor, I always emphasize the importance of accuracy, truthfulness, and fairness in my classes. “As a journalist, your job is to bring reliable information to your audiences, verify and triple check the facts before you bring those stories to your audiences without employing false information,” I tell my young students. We hold the ten principles Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel proposed in their book, The Elements of Journalism, sacred. We discuss the importance of critical thinking in journalism and examine the dangers of a single story.
Yet, as I watched the news reporting by the media of the largest democracy about one of the most militarized places in the world, there were no rules. There was no journalism. Indian state had finally turned into what French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot calls an “ethnic democracy” where “where minorities are second class citizens.” India’s Muslim citizens and Dalits were openly lynched in the name of Lord Rama. Social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp, became a fertile ground for spreading misinformation, promoting hate speech against and celebrating violence against Muslims and other minorities. According to the New York Times, India is Facebook’s largest market, with around 340 million users. And even though most of the misinformation comes from India, where bots and fake accounts tied to the BJP are spreading communal hatred and violence against minorities, 87% of Facebook’s global budget is set aside for the United States, and only 13% is set for the rest of the world.
I watched as many Indian activist friends got trolled for speaking against the atrocities of the Indian government in Kashmir. I watched as many Indian friends celebrated the abrogation of Article 370, praised the Modi government for opening up Kashmir for “development.” I watched as Bollywood, with its history of trivializing Indian occupation in Kashmir, and bolstering Indian nationalism in their movies, welcomed the dehumanization of Kashmiri people. According to news reports, within a week of removing Article 370 in Kashmir, more than fifty titles were registered at various Hindi film bodies like Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association (IMPPA), Producers Guild of India and Indian Film TV Producers Council (IFTPC). The titles included Article 370, Article 35A, Kashmir Hamara Hai (Kashmir is ours), Dhara 370 (Article 370), Kashmir main Tiranga (Tricolor in Kashmir), among others, ‘reinforcing Bollywood’s role in India’s settler-colonial project.’
Bollywood’s obsession with Kashmir has always been about perpetuating a “single story” of Kashmir. Be it in the 60s, 70s, and the 80s, when Kashmir was portrayed like a slice of paradise on earth where the Indian male protagonist loses his inhibitions in the snow-capped mountains of the valley and falls in love with the naïve poor Kashmiri woman. The valley was feminized for its beauty, extending the colonial ideologies to Kashmiri women’s bodies which could be fetishized for their fairness, and capitalized just like Kashmiri land. No wonder, when the news of repealing of Article 370 spread, many Indians cheered that they would now have access to the Kashmiri land and Kashmiri women.
After the militancy broke out against the Indian occupation in the 90s, Bollywood focused its attention on susceptible bearded Kashmiri young man driven to violence by a radical ideology whose existence was as dangerous as his religion, Islam. Thus, Kashmir took the center stage as a breeding place for violence where every Kashmiri was either a suspect or a terrorist. The Indian army became the natural saviours to protect feminized Kashmiri land and use fetishized Kashmiri women against the dangerous Kashmiri men. For instance, in the movie, Shershaah (2021), the highest-rated Hindi movie on IMDB, the heroic sacrifice of an Indian army officer is valorized who laid his life to protect the ‘honour’ of his ‘motherland’ against brainwashed Kashmiris who slip to the other side of the mountains to train in ‘radical Islamist’ Pakistan. In one of the scenes, one paramilitary officer tells another to focus on the traffic instead of staring at Kashmiri women because “there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing here.” With the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, it would be no surprise to see the continued glorified representation of the Indian army as the guardians of the land to feed the growing Islamophobic and Hindu nationalist audience.
As I was reading the news, my phone buzzed. It was a video of my grandfather. “Hum to saare bachhe theek thaak hain. Main ye chahta hoon ki aap khush rahe wahan. Hamare liye dua bhi karein,” (we are all fine here. I want you to be happy. Pray for us) he tells my Indian journalist friend who went all the way from Delhi to Srinagar to find him and record a video for me.
“Aagaye hain mushqilaat magar us main bhi qudrat ne bahut meherbaani ki. Reham kiya har waqt. Aap ko bhi reham karega” (We are facing some problems, but almighty has been quite gracious. Always. He will be generous on you too), he says with a smile.
“Aur meri jigar. Theek hona. Saare theek hain meri jigar” (And my dear, are you okay? We are all fine, my dear), he says as the video ends.
It had been three weeks since I had spoken to him. I watched as I waited to get through my family caged in Kashmir.
“Gova?” (Did it go through?). That is what I heard when he put me on a conference call. My sister’s chosen brother called me one morning at 6:15 am. I had never spoken to him before. So, I was a little surprised to see his name popping on my phone screen. “I have Andy on conference call,” he said, referring to my sister. “What?” I asked. Before he could answer, I heard my sister’s voice asking, “gova?” (Did it go through?) The last time I spoke to her was on a text message. She had landed in Kashmir a day before the siege with her husband and my year-old nephew. I had texted, “how’s Kashmir?” “Kashmir is as it is,” she had responded. I had heard her voice after 20 days.
October 2019. As I landed in Srinagar, my cellphone stopped working. A newly minted doctorate from the United States, I walked through the barricades of the Indian army in a freshly decorated facade of an airport. ’Welcome to Paradise on Earth,’ read the placard. The words written in blue ink almost disappeared on the red and yellow tulip backdrop. A collage of Bollywood movies posters greeted me as I left the airport. ’Welcome to Kashmir.’
The roads were mostly empty. As we drove past Batmaloo, the text in Urdu on the wall of an army cantonment read— “This area belongs to the army. Trespassers will be shot dead.” “My home is the barrel of a gun,” writes poet Warsan Shire. On the same stretch of the road, I see a police barricade that read, “Your security is our concern.”
My parents don’t own a car, and because public transport was mainly suspended, I was stuck at home. I studied the broken glasses of my parent’s house. They reminded me of my childhood spent at my grandfather’s house, my matamaal, where the incessant fights between the Indian army and the militants would leave the windows bullet-ridden. My mother told me the Indian military would throw stones at the windows occasionally.
On the way to my matamaal, a 10-min-walk from my parents’ house, I saw graffiti about the slain young militant Burhan Wani embellished on the walls. The local English daily, Greater Kashmir was mostly filled with advertisements. If one accidentally watched the Indian media, it was as usual full of the rhetoric of how Kashmiris were finally a part of India.
My cousins had not gone to school or college in months. A picture book brought to me by a younger cousin had pictures of “our great leaders.” All 12 photos on the page were of Indian politicians, including the current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.
The project of creating India as a Hindu nation was designed back in the 1930s when the Hindu traditionalists within the Congress party were seen as “Hindu chauvinists” but not outright Hindu militants. In 2014, Modi came into power essentially by arguing that India’s global reputation as a weak country resulted from the failures of the Nehru Gandhi family. He openly called himself a “Hindu nationalist with a deep Hindu heart,” and people supported him because they saw him as a strong leader with a majoritarian tilt. His success was rooted in creating the “other” as a national threat. In this new majoritarian dominant narrative, all Muslims became national security threats. Traditional media and social media actively built a cult of personality around Modi, hailing him as a strong leader and a great visionary who could be compared to Hindu Gods.
To think of these ‘developments’ in the political landscape and the subsequent media discourses emerging out of it in India, as complex and inextricably tied to the larger history of violence and propaganda in Kashmir is essential; mainly, inter alia, to understand how a Kashmiri audience consumes the news and information about Kashmir from the Indian media. I try to reflect upon the ways in which the experiences of deceit, dispossession and denial of political autonomy- the events of Aug 5, prompted us to rethink India’s actions in Kashmir as an ongoing project of nation-building; the grounds for which were made a long time ago. I suppose, and beyond that, hope that this reflection will lead us closer to understanding the intricate connections between Kashmir’s occupation, Islamophobia and the media discourses within India.
Souzeina Mushtaq is an educator and a photographer based in New York City. She received her doctorate in Media and Gender studies from Ohio University. She worked as a journalist in multiple capacities as a reporter, editor, and television host for seven years in Kashmir and New Delhi. Her research focuses on queer Muslim women and their intersecting identities. Moreover, she collaborated on a visual ethnography project on “Nomads and Weavers of the Himalayas” in Kashmir and Tibet and “Yörüks of the Taurus Mountains” in Turkey for nearly a decade. The work has been exhibited in major galleries in New York City, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Queretaro, Puebla City, and New Delhi. She currently teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin-RiverFalls.